Select Committee on Science and Technology Fifth Report


FIFTH REPORT

The Science and Technology Committee has agreed to the following Report:

GOVERNMENT FUNDING OF THE SCIENTIFIC LEARNED SOCIETIES

SUMMARY

This Report examines whether the substantial government funding given to the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering represents good value for money and whether the support from Government to the other learned societies is appropriate. Our conclusions are broadly positive, but we believe that the present funding is haphazard rather than the product of strategic thinking on the part of the Office of Science and Technology. We recommend that the Government establish a fund to which learned societies could bid for core funding.

The majority of the £28.75 million funding for the Royal Society and the £4.77 million given to the Royal Academy of Engineering in 2001-02 was passed on to the scientific community in the form of research fellowships and awards. These schemes are highly regarded by the scientific community and fund very valuable work. We recommend that these schemes continue, though we lack the information to judge their relative cost-effectiveness to similar schemes administered by the Research Councils.

The Royal Society has its rental costs met by Government. We believe that it is right that the UK's "academy of sciences" should be housed in central London at government expense, though its facilities might reasonably be made available to other societies on a cost-only basis. Under a historical agreement, subject to legal dispute, several learned societies are housed in Burlington House free of charge. Putting an end to the arrangement would undoubtedly impact on the work they do.

We examine the role of the learned societies in providing scientific advice to Government. The learned societies have considerable expertise, which is at present under-used: we recommend that Government make greater use of a wider range of bodies, and that societies receive adequate financial compensation for their efforts.

Public communication of science activities are funded by Government through a variety of channels, and in a piecemeal manner. We examine the role of Copus and recommend that it be reformed as an umbrella body for science communication efforts, independent of the Royal Society.

The Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering have been criticised for being unrepresentative in their membership. The number of women among their Fellows is disappointing, but broadly consistent with the highest levels of science and engineering; there are more grounds for concern about possible bias against newer academic disciplines. The absence of ethnic monitoring either of their Fellows or of senior scientists and engineers makes it impossible to judge whether they are representative. While these are independent bodies, we believe that bodies in receipt of public funding should meet the standards expected of the public service in terms of inclusiveness and transparency.

INTRODUCTION

Our inquiry

1. We are charged by the House of Commons with examining the expenditure of the Office of Science and Technology (OST). In both the Department of Trade and Industry's Estimates and the OST's Science Budget, expenditure on the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering is listed alongside that for the Research Councils, Joint Infrastructure Fund and other government science initiatives.[1] We have launched an ongoing programme of scrutiny of the Research Councils which take the great majority of OST's funding, but we were also curious about the purpose of the £30 million given to the Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering in 2001-02. On 19 December 2001, when the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry and the Minister for Science came before us we asked them about the rationale of funding the Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering through the Science Budget.[2] We subsequently received a detailed breakdown of the OST allocations to both institutions.[3] We decided to conduct an inquiry to find out whether this considerable investment represents good value for money.

2. There are many other scientific learned societies in the UK, ranging from the largest, which represent broad areas of science, engineering and technology, such as the Institute of Physics and the Royal Society of Chemistry, to small groups with a very specialist interest. We were aware that some of them also received government funding directly, in the form of project grants, and indirectly, from occupying subsidised accommodation for example. We decided to include these societies in our inquiry, looking at the level of support they received from Government, through direct funding, benefits in kind and from one-off grants for particular projects. On 7 February 2002 we announced an inquiry into government funding of the scientific learned societies. Our terms of reference included an examination of the role of the learned societies in providing scientific advice to Government and in communicating science to the public, and how these activities were co­ordinated.

3. In the course of this inquiry, we received over 60 memoranda from learned societies, professional institutions and individuals. We held informal visits to both the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering, during which we were briefed about their work. We also held an informal meeting with Sir William Stewart, President, and Fellows of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in Edinburgh. Details of the visits are contained in Annex 1. We held three formal oral evidence sessions. On 8 May 2002, we heard oral evidence from Lord May of Oxford, President of the Royal Society, Professor Dame Julia Higgins, Vice President and Foreign Secretary and Mr Stephen Cox, Executive Secretary, the Royal Society; and from Sir Alec Broers, President, Professor Ann Dowling, Vice President and Mr Jon Burch, Executive Secretary, the Royal Academy of Engineering. On 12 June 2002 the Committee examined representatives from the British Computer Society; the Royal Geographical Society; the Royal Society of Chemistry; the British Association for the Advancement of Science and Dame Bridget Ogilvie, Chair and Professor Ian Halliday, council member, Copus. On 19 June 2002 Professor John Enderby, Vice President and Physical Secretary and Mr Stephen Cox, Executive Secretary from the Royal Society appeared before the Committee. We are very grateful to all those who provided evidence to us, and in particular wish to thank our specialist adviser, Professor Michael Elves, formerly Director of the Office of Scientific and Educational Affairs, Glaxo Wellcome plc.[4]

Definitions

4. The Foundation for Science and Technology compiles a very useful Register of nearly 400 Learned and Professional Societies.[5] There is no clear definition of a 'learned society'. They are a heterogeneous body of organisations, ranging from small, local societies, and those with highly specialised fields of interest, to those with both large memberships and broader interests within particular major scientific or engineering disciplines. They look to develop their particular area of interest, promoting discussion and dissemination of new information amongst their membership. They also use meetings and publications to improve public understanding of their fields and to encourage further research and scholarship. In addition, some learned societies, particularly those operating under a Royal Charter, have the role of maintaining standards within the particular profession they represent and awarding individuals "chartered status" within it. They ensure that members have received appropriate levels of training, and hold appropriate qualifications prior to admission and, increasingly, will lay down and monitor schemes for continuing professional development. The majority of Learned Societies will be made up of professionals working in or around the field in research or education (including in schools), but some will admit enthusiastic or interested amateurs to some grades of membership. Senior members of the societies may be elected or appointed as Fellows. Membership is almost always through election. In most cases their income comes from subscriptions, publications, conferences and private sponsorship. It is hard to distinguish between learned bodies and professional societies: many are both. It is also hard to define what is a "scientific" learned society.

5. We have attempted a list (which is printed as Annex 2) in the full expectation that some will be annoyed by their omission and others will disagree with their inclusion. We have included medical, engineering and technology, as well as strictly scientific, bodies, and also those involved in social sciences and archaeology. We have not included those bodies whose primary purpose is to promote science to the public: the British Association for the Advancement of Science and the Royal Institution of Great Britain, for example. Whatever its inaccuracies the list of 245 bodies may at least serve to show the rich variety of scientific learned societies in operation, as well as the local level of some activity.

6. When we refer to "the learned societies" in this Report, we are usually not including the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering although they do of course come under this description. We have used an upper case Fellowship throughout this Report to denote the body of Fellows of the organisations, and a lower case fellow to describe a research fellow.


1   The Government's Expenditure Plans 2001-02 to 2003-04 and Main Estimates 2001-02, Cm 5112, March 2001; Science Budget 2001-02 - 2003-04, November 2000 Back

2   Science and Technology Committee, Minutes of Evidence, 19 December 2001, HC 459-i, Ev 19 Back

3   Ibid, Ev 22-28 Back

4   Professor Elves is Treasurer of the Institute of Biology Back

5   The most recent was published in 1999 - a new version is in preparation Back


 
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